11 February 2014


We're quickly approaching the point where the good movies in Matthew McConaughey's filmography are outweighing the bad, so there's not really as much need to mention his recent McConaisance at the start of every review. Well, maybe that one last time. Given the calibre of his performance in Dallas Buyers Club, which might represent his best work ever, it's only fair that we quit talking about Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past.

This is based on a true story, and the script was in circulation for almost two decades, unable to get financial backing. McConaughey has carried it through to the big screen, and the result is both poignant and powerful. He plays Ron Woodruff, a bigoted cowboy whose life is turned upside down when he's diagnosed with HIV. Amidst general misconceptions about the disease and how to treat it, he's inspired for entirely selfish reasons to research alternative medicines and help fellow sufferers to treat themselves.

The film is really on McConaughey's shoulders for the most part. Aside from having lost so much weight for the part that it's almost a shock to see him looking so gaunt, his performance only appears more dynamic. He has wrought more charisma out of characters considerably more reprehensible than his previous romcom leads in the last few years, and Ron Woodruff could well be the apotheosis of that trend, making his arc in this film, which is borne out of equal parts selfishness and redemption, even more watchable.

Also, there's formidable support from Jared Leto, and it's these two actors who've been hoovering up praise across the board. Leto plays Rayon, a transgender HIV patient who becomes Ron's business partner. Even though this would have been a great showcase for an actor who really is trans, Rayon is actually a composite of several real life people who worked with Ron, and Leto does a tremendous job in the role. Neither Leto or McConaughey are called upon to do big scenes of Oscar-clip-worthy showboating, and instead, they complement each other's performances.

Equally, it's not a film about drastic suffering, instead focusing on the effort to survive the disease, and the foibles and failings of the medical administration in America. HIV and AIDS sufferers frequently found the bureaucracy of the Food and Drug Administration inattentive to their more immediate need for effective treatment, and unwilling to test potentially life-saving medication if it doesn't have a big backer behind it. It's symptomatic of the film's strengths that the injustice is more striking during Ron's outbursts against their inadequate measures, than in more obvious displays like Jennifer Garner's sympathetic doctor beating the shit out of her wall with a hammer.

On the whole, however, it's fundamentally compromised in the telling. While the written Ron makes for a compelling character study, you don't have to dig around for too long to discover that his character's homophobia and attraction to Garner's character (who was male in real life) are little more than embellishments to the story structure. Dramatic licence is fine, but the film goes to such extreme lengths to have him be the Straight White Hope for a disease whose sufferers, at the height of the crisis depicted, were primarily gay, that it sometimes feels somewhat cynical, even in spite of its subdued and earnest tone.

Dallas Buyers Club is stunning in its more subdued moments, and its heart is basically in the right place. Director Jean-Marc Vallée has made a handsome and harrowing film with clearly limited means, and one which defies its own "Oscar bait" ghetto-isation to tell a touching and affecting story, led by two unassuming but incredible performances by McConaughey and Leto. It might not be a definitive portrait of an AIDS sufferer, but for a script that has been bouncing around for almost 20 years, the end result is decidedly more worthwhile than merely "worthy".

Dallas Buyers Club is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Dallas Buyers Club, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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